Tony Dungy, the coach of the Indianapolis Colts, speaking at his son's funeral on Tuesday, used his position to try to inspire football followers both on and off the field. Dungy was talking publicly for the first time since his 18-year-old son was found dead in an apparent suicide last week, and the coach addressed more than 2,000 mourners.
He also turned to his players and, speaking as a father, issued a challenge far more important than winning football games. "You're some great guys. You really are," Dungy said. "I want to urge you to continue being who you are because our young boys in this country, they need to hear from you. If anything, be bolder in who you are. Because our boys are getting a lot of the wrong messages about what it means to be a man in this world."
Dungy and his wife, Lauren, buried their eldest son on Tuesday after an emotional two-hour service attended by NFL stars, past and present, a contingent of league officials including the commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, and the entire Colts team. Four other NFL head coaches - Dennis Green, Herman Edwards, Lovie Smith and Jack Del Rio - also came to pay their respects at Idlewild Baptist Church, just outside Tampa. So, too, did the University of Washington coach, Ty Willingham.
Dungy spoke for nearly 20 minutes, lovingly recalling James as a "mama's boy" with a "compassionate heart" - someone who loved to smile and have fun. Dungy dabbed his eyes and strained to retain composure. But his message was unwavering: His son was a "sweet young boy" who struggled with many of the same issues as others his age.
"As he got a little older, like all teenagers, he was searching for who that person was inside of him. Who he was going to be... And like most of us, I think he went through a time as a teenager that he wasn't sure his parents always had the best advice. He wasn't sure that we always had his best interest at heart," the coach said. "My daughter Tiara said it best the other day. She said: 'I just wish he could have made it until he was 20. Because when you're 17 or 18, sometimes the things you guys say to us don't always make sense... When I got to 20, they started making sense again'." Tiara, the oldest of Dungy's five children, is 21.
Before leaving for the cemetery, Dungy made a brief statement outside the church and, on behalf of his wife and family, thanked friends and fans for their support. "We loved our son very much, he loved us and we miss him terribly," he said. "James was a good young man with a compassionate heart and we were glad to have him for 18 years... God has him now for the rest of eternity."
Shortly before the service began, the Colts entered a side door to the main auditorium of the 5,200-seat church, filed past the open casket and took their seats to the right of the family section.
Dungy, with his right arm draped around his wife's shoulder, led the family in and stood in front of the cherrywood casket to say a final goodbye. The couple took seats in a pew a few feet away, then watched solemnly as the lid was closed and the service began.
Dungy left the Colts last Thursday, on the day his son was found, and it is unclear when he will return. A preliminary autopsy report indicated the teenager took his own life, but the exact cause of death will not be released until a toxicology examination is completed in four to six weeks.
Dungy said that James should be remembered as a thoughtful youngster who was intensely loyal.